Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia-Abu Jamal
Long Distance Revolutionary:
Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal is a compelling documentary about a riveting historical figure — a passionate, partisan, and persuasive intervention in the not-at-all “free marketplace of ideas.” Abu-Jamal is the most fa- mous political prisoner in the United States — Black revolutionary, author, philosopher, speaker, radio personality, and superhero for a lost generation that urgently needs to see one in the flesh.
The film is a labor of love by Stephen Vittoria — producer, director, cinematographer. In the case of Long Distance Revolutionary there is very little “action footage” (although the footage of the Philadelphia police blowing up the MOVE compound and killing 11 innocent residents is more action than we would ever want to see). Vittoria has organized the film as a collective narrative with dozens of “witnesses” like those in Warren Beatty’s film Reds about the life of revolutionary John Reed. But fortunately, Abu-Jamal is still alive to tell his own story as well. The narrative line is like a tone poem, with a who’s who of storytellers woven by Vittoria into coherent narrative, with each one playing a brilliantly cast role: their own. Ruby Dee, Cornel West, Juan Gonzalez, Linn Washington, Ramona Africa, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Johanna Fernandez, Peter Coyote, Lydia Barashango, Terry Bisson, and dozens of others tell amazing stories, and Vittoria’s editing makes them emerge as one powerful collective voice. The cast is fascinating not just because of their vivid, provocative observations about the U.S. political system and Abu-Jamal’s role in it, but also as reflections of their own politics and identities.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was born in 1954 as Wesley Cook in Philadelphia. By 14 years old, he was a journalist, writing articles for the Black Panther newspaper. Mumia tells us, “The Panther paper sold 250,000 copies a week in the U.S. and internationally. How could they say I was not a professional journalist?” Imagine 250,000 newspapers being sold by men and women in black leather jackets and black berets, one by one, and the ability to talk to so many people about revolutionary ideology in the process. Then there is the use of “professional” by Lenin, meaning someone dedicated to the revolution and willing to get good at the job. In both conventional and proletarian senses, Abu-Jamal is a great professional.
Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story that begins in the last great revolutionary upsurge of the late 1950s, 1960s, and well into the 1970s until the rise of Reagan and the full-blown counter-revolution. Abu-Jamal, a revolutionary Black man with long dreds, a marvelous voice, and great journalistic instincts, rose in the radio journalism profession. The film documents his rise to host of a weekly radio program at WCAU-FM in 1978 and from 1979 to 1981, his work at National Public Radio affiliate WUHY, and his election as the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. The film explains many lucrative and high- profile offers he received; he was a man on the rise. The price of fame, fortune, exposure, and even the ability to tell the “news” with a wink and a nod in the direction of the movement would have been very appealing to many. All he had to do was cut his dreds, tone down his revolutionary politics, and relinquish his role as an unapologetic partisan, “the voice of the voiceless” and an ardent advocate for Black revolutionary nationalist groups like MOVE.
Instead, and even some of his friends debate his tactical plan, Abu-Jamal became less compromising with his employers, which led him to greater and greater unemployment. Abu-Jamal was not the first of the “embedded” reporters—his problem, from the point of view of the system, is that he was embedded with the wrong side in the war. That uncompromising stance led Abu-Jamal to drive a cab at night to help support himself and his family. It led him, on the night of December 9, 1981, to run to the aid of his brother, William Cook, whose vehicle had been stopped by Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. In the ensuing incident, there was an exchange of shots. Both Faulkner and Abu-Jamal were shot. Faulkner died of his wounds. Abu-Jamal was badly injured, beaten by the police, taken to the hospital, and beaten again. The case went to trial in June 1982, prosecuted by then District Attorney (later, Pennsylvania Governor) Ed Rendell.
(Twenty-six years later, in 2008, then-Governor Rendell, a Hillary Clinton supporter, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, during the Democratic primaries, why he thought Obama would lose in Pennsylvania. “You’ve got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate,” he said, the wish being the father to the thought. Some things and people never change.)
This is the man who both persecuted and prosecuted Abu-Jamal. The jury, after only three hours of deliberation, unanimously found Abu-Jamal guilty of first degree murder.
At first, I wished the filmmaker had given a short presentation on the legal and moral case for his “innocence,” but after further thought, I decided he made the right call. In just reading many accounts of the circumstances and the trial, the “he said/she said” arguments would have muddied the waters and lost the focus of the argument. In this film, we take Abu-Jamal at his word and the system at its words. This film, in my view, is an appeal to a very large Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and antiracist white audience to more fully understand the political significance, more than even the injustice, of Abu-Jamal’s life and to use his ideas to truly “free all political prisoners.” Abu- Jamal has already been in prison for 30 years, and recently, through relentless legal representation, his death sentence was overturned. Now he is in the general population, serving the cruel and unusual sentence of “life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
The film is framed throughout by what seems like one long interview with Mumia with his unique, dulcet, focused voice, compelling visage, and brilliant politics. I have now seen the film three times, first at a screening by Vittoria that we were invited to by longtime prison radio producer Noelle Hanrahan, and twice more in preparation for this review. But the film, which runs two hours, takes me twice as long to view because I keep pausing to write down great quotes and ideas. I think the film, especially for an audience of young revolutionary Black organizers (and organiz- ers of all races), could be taught as a six-session course, with each section requiring research and greater historical investigation. In a conversation I had with Abu-Jamal on my radio show, Voices from the Frontlines, we were talking about the Black revolutionary tradition and how that tradition — Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Hubert Harrison, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and so many more — has been lost on a new generation of Black people, Abu-Jamal responded that Black people today are suffering from what he called “menticide”—the loss of their full mental faculties by being denied their own history. (Alice Walker makes a similar observation in the film.) The obvious lesson of the film is that Abu-Jamal is the latest and most prominent member of that pantheon and that we need many more to “live like him.” Moreover, because of Long Distance Revolutionary, his prolific written work should get more attention—Live From Death Row, The Classroom and the Cell, All Things Censored, Jailhouse Lawyers, Death Blossoms, and We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party will create a great baseline for his intervention in Black and revolutionary studies.
Long Distance Revolutionary retells a history that is almost unbelievable if one did not experience it firsthand. The story of Frank Rizzo, the police chief and then mayor of Philadelphia, and his construction of a self-proclaimed police state and his intimate knowledge of Abu-Jamal’s danger to his worldview, creates the clear motive for the framing of Abu-Jamal for the murder of a police officer. It explains the COINTELPRO program, an FBI program with the explicit objective of destroying the Black revo- lutionary movement of which Abu-Jamal was a key target.
Parenthetically, Vittoria captures a great vignette of one of the Abu-Jamal haters in the film saying, with no sense of irony, “If he wasn’t so good looking and had such a great voice, do you think people would care about him?” It demonstrates the undeniable charisma that even his enemies have to acknowledge. In Abu- Jamal’s many commentaries throughout the film, in his demeanor and voice, his transcendence of his captivity and captors is even more profound. He rises above his jailers with his contempt for their racism, their barbarism, their system. But we should never underestimate the heroic courage he exhibits in the face of un- bearable pain and suffering—otherwise we cannot even fathom what heroism looks like. Alice Walker, in the film, captures it beautifully: “Everyone has the midnight hour, with the darkness and terror. We do not see his midnight hour.” But she wants us to know his challenge is to face a greater darkness and terror that very few of us can even imagine.
Abu-Jamal is one of the leading revolutionary intellectuals of our time. It is essential to “free Mumia Abu-Jamal” physically from bondage, and the Free Mumia campaign has a plan to get him released from prison altogether. It is also of great historical significance to free his profound political perspective from the “limited release” of his present incarceration. Long Distance Revolutionary is a critical contribution to that objective.
THE ROLE Of ORGANIZING
Long Distance Revolutionary will be released in February 2013 and is currently making several festival stops. Readers should check to find out when the film is opening in their area and initiate an organizing campaign to turn out people to fill the theaters. This is especially true for the opening weeks in New York (February 1) and Los Angeles (February 15), which determine how many other cities the film will make it to. My own organization, the Labor/ Community Strategy Center, and its Bus Riders Union and Com- munity Rights Campaigns, will be giving the turnout for the film a very high priority. We will be working with Stephen Vittoria to make sure its initial run in the theaters has enough attendance that it is kept in those theaters.
I raise these ideas specifically to make “organizing” for Long Distance Revolutionary real — and as organizers, we need a very concrete tactical plan to fight to win. What is your organizing plan? How many people can you get to attend these screenings? If you are public school or university faculty, can you purchase copies of the DVD and use it in curriculum? And what actions are we asking people to take once they have seen the film? Certainly critical interventions would be to join the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners, to end solitary confinement and supermax prisons, where 80,000 people are locked up 23 hours a day or more, and to abolish the barbaric sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. Organizing around Long Distance Revolutionary can very well be a vital tool in that movement.